Why is Algebra So Challenging to Students? (2)

11/13/2013

(Previous part: Why is Algebra So Challenging to Students? (1))

Fortunately, I then proceeded to a university that did not require a high math level, though math was still a mandatory course for all freshmen. In the first semester, the main focus of our math class was on Game Theory. This was not as challenging to me as pure algebra, since it involved in more reasoning and comparison than equation solving. I was hilarious when I finally saw an A on my math report for that semester. In the second semester of the first year, we studied some sort of linear algebra (now I even forget what it is called exactly). This time the nightmare of math re-appeared in front of me. I quit the class half-way in that semester and did not show up in the final exam, doubtlessly receiving an F at last. I knew I could not get my bachelor's degree without a pass for math because it was one of the mandatory core subjects, so I had to retake the course in my sophomore year. This time I was absent from most of the classes as I once did since I did not feel comfortable sitting together with a crowd of Year 1 students, none of whom I was familiar with. However, I took all the assignments seriously and worked on my own to read through the thick textbook. In other words, I taught myself on the subject, with the wish to get a mere pass in the final exam. A miracle happened that an A appeared again in my math report.


At that point, I could not help wondering whether I might have the slightest talent in math. Even till today, I still cannot tell why a student failing in math throughout middle school and high school like me could get double As in university math courses. Which party is the most problematic and who is to blame for shaping math into an impediment? It seems to be too difficult to come to a final agreement.


Prof. Hacker as well as the netizens leaving comments and arguing below his article has proposed some practical advice to the current math standards and curriculum. One suggestion is that math teachers at all levels create exciting courses that involves more practical problems in people's daily life. For instance, an engineer hoped the school to teach students about banking and balancing a checkbook, for he found his young subordinates with decent degrees did not even know how to write a check. Another is that in order to help liberal arts students appreciate math in their ways, math departures can create online math courses from the perspectives of history and philosophy, just like the course Art History goes. A third opinion is to give students a choice of what subject(s) they can skip on their way to a college degree, instead of requiring all to study algebra/geometry/calculus for consecutive years and achieve very good grades.


There are a few people who believe the math teachers that cannot make students fully understand basic concepts are to blame for the current situation, and teachers' attitude also matters. I agree with this point of view, since I used to have math teachers who were either too strict (or stingy?) to give any encouragement to failing students or showed apparent favoritism to those top students in class. Considering from this perspective, what contributed to my math achievements at university might lie in the teachers, both of whom were softies who would never say anything insulting to the student with the worst performance.


As math subjects (particularly algebra) have been a universal headache for students across the world, while all countries are eager to arm their youngsters to teeth in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) credentials so as to compete with their worldwide counterparts, a more informative and practical math curriculum and talent selecting system without too much burden on students should be explored and figured out. The governments, schools and teachers all need to make changes to the traditional mechanism that no longer works effectively in the fast evolving world.

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